Outlander star and whisky fanatic Sam Heughan joined Vic Galloway in the SMWS Members’ Room on Bath Street in Glasgow recently to take part in our Whisky Talk Malts & Music podcast series. In this edited extract, Sam discusses his growing passion for whisky, his appreciation of the SMWS and his current and future plans for the whisky and wider spirits world
PHOTOS: PETER SANDGROUND
VG: Tell us about your whisky journey, how you discovered whisky and why you’re such a whisky fanatic now. Where did it start?
SH: I think like yourself, your first introduction is probably a little quarter bottle, sneakily drank behind the bus shelter, something really young and not very palatable, it sort of gives you hairs on your chest. It wasn’t until I was living in London with a good friend from Scotland, there was a Burns Night in our local bar and we were missing Scotland, being quite kind of homesick. We ordered a single malt whisky, it was the first time I had really drunk whisky properly, and I was just like: ‘Oh, my God!’. It took me back to Scotland. It reminded me of Scotland. It’s weird, I have an emotional reaction to whisky, I think people do. You know, it’s not like vodka or other spirits, whisky just has so much going on and can really conjure your imagination.
VG: You’re a long-standing member of The Scotch Malt Whisky Society – what do you appreciate about the Society so much?
SH: Well, looking at the whiskies you put out, they’re all so unique, so individual. They have these incredible names and great descriptions of what each whisky tastes like. That’s really accessible for someone who’s new to whisky or trying to explore different whiskies. You look at the profile name and the description, and then you see if you can find those same flavour profiles that are described. But also the Members’ Rooms, I have to say they are brilliant. We’re in Glasgow right now, The Vaults [in Leith] is beautiful, and I do like popping into Queen Street [in Edinburgh’s New Town] now and then.
As a member, you get access to those unique bottlings before anyone else. I often take guests along to The Vaults and we have a few drams, and then they’re kind of like: “I need to buy a bottle of this.”
PICTURED: Sam in Glencoe perusing a Society dram
VG: Tell us about your own whisky, Sassenach. Some people might think Sassenach is the name for an English person, an ‘outlander’, right?
SH: You got it in one! It was a derogatory name, a name for an English person or an outsider, and I think that’s why we took it on board. Part of it was from Outlander, where my character’s term of endearment for his wife is ‘Sassenach’. I think the show has changed that, and I think Scotland has changed. Scotland has become a very open, forward-thinking place. We’re very welcoming, and I think, you know, aren’t we all ‘the Sassenach’? And anyone that’s not from Scotland should feel welcome here.
So, yeah, I sort of wanted to own that. I also wanted to create something that is uniquely Scottish, a great blend that is up there with the Asian blends, and I didn’t think we had that. There is other splendid Scotch, but this one is predominantly a malt whisky, and it has that real character of Scotland. So that was the beginning, and then working back in Scotland I was offered a lot of opportunities to work with different brands, but I really wanted to create something of my own, so we were self-financed and self-designed.
VG: And a lovely bottle!
SH: From the bottle to the design to the juice, you know, it’s all me, really, and I’m proud of it.
VG: And did you do the tastings to get it all right?
SH: First of all, we went on a road trip, myself and my business partner, we toured all around Scotland and met a number of master distillers, different producers, from the Lowlands up to Aberdeen and the Highlands, and eventually we came upon one person who we decided would be our master distiller. He just had a great understanding and a great appreciation, and we agreed on a lot. And then I tormented him for months. You know, he kept sending me samples, and we went down this journey together and eventually came to this blend. It’s predominantly a single malt in there. It is a blend of a 12 and a 9-year-old malt and then a 19-year-old organic grain, I’m a huge grain fan. You can get these amazing, very aged bottles that are half the price of a single malt.
VG: You don’t seem to be a snob about whisky. If it’s a good blend, you’re into it. If it’s a grain whisky, you’re into it. No doubt you like ryes and all sorts of other stuff.
SH: I’m a huge rye fan, actually, yeah, really big. I was recently in America, and I went on a trek around New York with all the different distributors, looking at their rye selection, there’s stuff you can get there you can’t get over here.
VG: And, as well as Sassenach whisky, you’re also doing a tequila.
SH: We did a collaboration with a tequila brand. It was funny, it was actually the day we officially launched the Sassenach in America. We were in Jalisco with some friends, and we were tasting some different tequilas. One of our friends there, Tony Salles, is a third-generation master distiller, he was drinking our whisky, we were drinking his tequila, and we were like: ‘Why don’t we do something, just a one-off bottling?’ And it was an exceptional tequila, really exceptional.
I think in the UK we don’t have appreciation of good tequila as much as they have in the US. We all have those memories of like: ‘Let’s do a shot of tequila’, you make a face when you drink, and you grab a lime and you suck it ‘cause it’s so bad. But tequila can be like a great single malt, or like Sassenach – there are so many flavour profiles, especially with the aged tequilas, the reposados [ages up to a year in oak], añejo [aged more than a year]. Our tequila, the Sassenach Select El Tequileño, is a doublewood reposado, it’s actually an añejo, but because of the barrels it’s in, it’s termed differently. It’s been aged first in bourbon and then French oak, so it’s almost got a champagne quality.
We’re also working on a gin right now. I love Scotland and I want to celebrate Scottish culture and heritage, and we have so much to offer. Obviously the gin market is quite saturated at the moment but we are making our own, a wild Scottish gin. All the botanicals are from Scotland, from the glens and the Highlands. It’s been a really fun process.
VG: What kind of botanicals are you going to throw in? A bit of heather?
SH: Well, you guessed it, there’s heather in there, but there’s crab apples, obviously citrus is very hard to find in the UK, but I have these great memories of picking crab apples as a kid and they’re so sour. We’re using blaeberries, blackberries and toasted oats, which give it a really interesting mouthfeel, there’s almost like this rich ‘carameliness’.
VG: And tell us about the Men in Kilts experience and the book that you and Graham McTavish did, Clanlands. That must have been a new experience.
SH: I created and produced the show. I just wanted to go out on a tour of Scotland and do things that I enjoy. We had Richard from The Scotch Malt Whisky Society come and do a wee tasting with us. I think that was the first thing we ever did, actually, at 9am, a whisky tasting – it was probably the right way to start the tour! We went all around Scotland, did a number of activities, and we’ve now just finished our second season in New Zealand, where I got to taste some great drams. There’s some really interesting whisky coming out of New Zealand, and of course, a lot of the Scots that went down there took the skills with them, so it’s no surprise, really.
VG: What’s next for Sam Heughan?
SH: I feel very lucky...Outlander has opened opportunities and doors for me, and I do have my business side, but it’s what I’m really passionate about – the whisky, the gin and a number of things. And I’ve actually got something really big for Scotland coming up.
VG: Are you going to give us a little exclusive on this?
SH: It’s very big and it’s something I’ve been working on for a long time, I’m very excited about it. And then hopefully, career-wise and acting, I don’t know, we’ll see what happens. But I would love to do more and drink more whisky!